1) A political tactic to appeal to racist motives in an electorate, or alternatively;

2) a political tactic to appeal to non-racist motives in the electorate by accusing an opponent of using racist appeals.


"Critics accuse him of playing the race card to woo disenchanted voters, particularly those from rural and regional Australia who have been largely bypassed by recent economic growth. They say the focus on immigration has distracted attention from other election issues - such as the collapse of Ansett, Australia's second largest airline".1
According to the New Political Dictionary (1993): "Because of the play of power in card games, the card metaphor has been applied to politics for centuries", and indeed, mobilising race as a political category is as old as politics itself. It is believed that the exact term as applied to race was coined in the UK in 1964, after Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths in Smethwick was accused of using the election slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour - vote Labour". He won the campaign. Secondly, the phrase could be attributed to Richard Nixon's 1970s rapprochement with China - known as "playing the China card".

Generally, major political parties step carefully around racial issues, wary of offending centrist voters. In the desperation of elections however, calculating politicians will often play the race card - witness Willie Horton in 1988, William Hague in 2000, and the Australian Federal Election 2001.

The notion that race is somehow the issue that will trump all others paints a fairly grim view of the electorate, and the only positive response that playing the race card provokes is a virulent backlash against racism.

1. quote from "Howard's refugee gamble paying off" http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia-pacific/newsid_1557000/1557082.stm

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